There’s a certain Catholic saint’s feast day in March that’s widely celebrated. People of all ethnicities and religions wear green on this day. Here in Chicago, there’s a parade and the Chicago River is even dyed green. It’s a day all about traditions and having a good time and, in some areas of the city, the celebrations last way longer than just one day. But there’s another Catholic saint’s feast day in March that takes place just two days later. There usually is no fanfare and the average person probably does not even know of the day’s importance. The day I’m speaking of is March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day. There is no parade in Chicago, no bodies of water being dyed. There might be a smattering of folks wearing red. Yet, to a great many of us, it’s still a day full of tradition and reflection.
Widely celebrated in Chicago by the Italian-American community, the history of the events associated with St. Joseph’s Day originates in the Middle Ages. The people of Sicily were in the middle of a terrible drought. Out of desperation, they prayed to St. Joseph to bring them rain; in return, they promised to host a huge meal in his honor. Soon enough, the rains came and the land was once again prosperous. As promised, an enormous feast was prepared. So began the tradition of the modern-day St. Joseph’s Table, which takes place annually at churches and Italian-American organizations around Chicagoland. On or around St. Joseph’s Day, parishioners or members donate large amounts of food to the St. Joseph’s Table, much of it homemade and meatless. Members of the community are invited to attend and enjoy the bountiful feast for a monetary donation that, most times, is handed over to organizations that help the needy.
It’s no surprise that yet another Italian-American tradition revolves around food. But for my family and me, it’s another opportunity for us to spend time with friends and family that we don’t get to see very often.
But of course, there is more food involved: the delicious zeppola (plural: zeppole). There are different types of zeppole out there but the one I’m most familiar with and, therefore, most fond of, is a lightly fried pastry filled with custard and topped with a maraschino cherry. We get these “St. Joseph’s cakes” only once a year, around March 19th, so we savor every last bite.
If you’d like to see what the tradition is all about and enjoy some homemade delicacies, click here to view a list of 2016 St. Joseph’s tables in and around Chicago’s Little Italy. And a few more not on the list above:
I originally wrote this article for Mommy Nearest in March of 2014. Only changes made here were to include 2016 St. Joseph’s Day event information.